Martha Lee PhotoTHE PUZZLING THING ABOUT THE GIVE AND TAKE OF LIFE

By Martha Lee

When I worked at the Bush Foundation, we held a series of convenings for Bush Fellows. At these gatherings, we introduced a game called Broken Squares. This little competition was a great way to inject some fun into the proceedings and get people engaged.

We organized the group into tables of five people each and gave everyone an envelope containing three paper puzzle pieces. The object of the game was to be the first table at which every person created an identical square using the puzzle pieces at the table by exchanging pieces.

The rules of the game were:

  • No talking.
  • You could only give puzzle pieces away. You could not take one from a teammate, unless it was offered to you.
  • No exaggerated gestures or facial expressions in order to coerce a teammate into giving you a puzzle piece.
  • You couldn’t shove all of your pieces into the center of the table for others to pick and choose from.

Referees walked around the room to make sure the rules were followed. There was one “catch” to the game that we made sure everyone understood prior to the start of it: there were puzzle pieces at the table that would create an incorrect square. What this meant was that a person at the table could create a square that would not allow everyone else at the table to create a square. This little catch is what made the game so very interesting.

It was fascinating to watch the game unfold. Every year we did it, the same thing happened: a person at a table would create a square, and he or she would just stop playing. It didn’t take too long for others at the table to figure out that the person had an incorrect square, but because of the rules, they were limited in what they could do to make their teammate understand this. Eventually, the person would figure it out, but by then another table usually had won. I can remember one year there was a very spirited and loud discussion at the table where this scenario played out.

Broken Squares is clearly an exercise in cooperation, sharing, teamwork and trust. The game asks you to trust the idea that we all do better when we all do better. It is an exercise in the belief in abundance.

I like to think of the correct square as representing the life that allows us to be our best self and the individual puzzle pieces are all the things — relationships, beliefs, family, experiences, work — that make up our lives. Every day we give and receive different puzzle pieces in an effort to create our own best life and support others in creating theirs.

Of course, our lives a consist of a lot more than three puzzle pieces and the rules of everyday living are far different from the rules for Broken Squares. Sometimes people actually take from us without asking or we hold on to pieces of our lives for all the wrong reasons or for far too long. Worst of all, we can find it hard to give up a life we created for ourselves, even though it is coming at the expense of people and things we care about.

I am reminded of a story a college friend, Karen, shared with me about her own struggle to give away a piece of her life to which she was very attached. Karen was serving as the board chair for a local nonprofit. She’d been on the board for 15 years, five of those as board chair. Karen believed deeply in the organization’s mission and loved serving on the board, because the work was interesting, challenging and made her feel like she was making a difference in her community.She also liked the prestige that came with having such an important position with an organization that was so revered in her community.

One day Karen got a call from a fellow board member, whom she’d recruited to the board two years earlier, asking her to have lunch. Karen thought the lunch was to get to know each other better, because the only thing Karen knew about her fellow board member was she was newly married and highly respected in her professional field.

While at lunch, the woman explained that she planned to resign from the board because she was frustrated that it seemed there was a subset of the board that was making all of the major decisions, with little input from the rest of the board. The woman determined it was best for her to move on rather than continue to be frustrated.

Karen was shocked, but worked hard to listen rather than become defensive. Before leaving the lunch, Karen asked the woman to pause her plans for at least a month, which the woman reluctantly agreed to do. Karen took some time to reflect on the conversation and her tenure with the organization. After a couple of weeks she met with the executive director and suggested they do some board development. The rest of the board supported the plan, so a consultant was brought in to work with them.

A report produced by the consultant revealed that several board members were frustrated with how the board was run. Karen realized that it was time to move on from the board in order to make way for new leadership. This decision was difficult for her because a lot of her identity at the time was tied to her role as board chair. Still, she gave up her role in service of making the organization’s board function better.

Today Karen continues to support the organization both with her time and money. The woman she had lunch with is now the board chair. And the organization benefited from the give and take that occurred.

Questions to Consider

  • Are there “puzzle pieces” – work, relationships, beliefs – you are holding onto in your life that you should give away or give up?
  • Have you ever realized you created an “incorrect” square for yourself?

Further Reading

Broken Squares activity and discussion guide